Employee posting offensive remarks on Facebook

The Employment Tribunal has heard another case involving an employee’s use of a social networking websites which resulted in dismissal. The matter of Preece v J D Wetherspoon plc concerned a pub manager working for Wetherspoons at the Ferry Boat Pub in Cheshire. Her contract of employment clearly set out that she could be dismissed for gross misconduct and that failure to comply with the company’s email, internet and intranet policy would amount to gross misconduct.

On one occasion, Miss Preece was subjected to prolonged verbal abuse by a group of customers as a result Miss Preece asked a number of them to leave the premises. Later in the day Miss Preece received abusive phone calls from those she had asked to leave. Miss Preece reacted to this by posting an offensive retort to the abusive customers using their names on her Facebook page (whilst still on her shift).

One of the abusive customers made a complaint to JD Wetherspoon plc about Miss Preece a number of weeks later stating that the ‘offensive comments’ on the Facebook posting were ‘very public’. Miss Preece admitted that she had acted in contravention of the internet policy but claimed that she believed her posts could only be read by up to 50 close friends rather than all of her 646 Facebook contacts. At a disciplinary meeting the complaints against Miss Preece were upheld and she was dismissed for gross misconduct for having failed to comply with the email and internet policy and specifically posting comments which were considered to lower the reputation of the Company. An internal appeal against her dismissal was rejected and Miss Preece was dismissed.

A claim for unfair dismissal was brought by Miss Preece but this was unsuccessful on the basis that Wetherspoon’s decision to dismiss her was within the band of reasonable responses available to her employers. She had entered into a Facebook discussion open to many, whilst on shift, and had made offensive and abusive remarks about identifiable customers. This action was in direct contravention of the email and internet policy and whilst Miss Preece had a right to freedom of expression under Article 10 European Convention on Human Rights this had to be balanced against Wetherspoon’s right to protect its reputation.

This case is a reminder of how important it is that there are clear guidelines for employees as to the use of social media whilst at work, one key means being a well drafted and comprehensive social media and internet policy. Please contact Lawspeed on 01273 236236 should you wish to discuss you company’s social media policy.

AWR final guidance published today
HR v FD – the AWR divide